By Lee Hamilton.
The two most important characters in your screenplay are the protagonist and the antagonist.
They say that a hero is only as good as the opponent they face, meaning that if you have a weak antagonist that’s easily beaten, then your hero isn’t going to be considered as anything special. The flip side of the coin is that if your antagonist is an impossible force to overcome, then your hero is going to be left looking like the weak one, so how do you find the right balance between these two central forces, and how do you create a worthy antagonist to pit against your hero?
First off, let’s get the definitions out of the way…
What is a protagonist?
This is the hero, the main character, the person whose journey we’re following. Even in an ensemble cast, there will be a ‘leader’ who garners more screen time than the rest, and the same applies to romances and buddy movies too.
The protagonist doesn’t necessarily have to be virtuous, likable, or have a great personality. Anti-heroes are becoming increasingly common, like Dexter, Breaking Bad’s Walter White, or Lou Bloom from Nightcrawler. They are all three-dimensional flawed characters who make dubious decisions, but if they’re well designed, the audience will root for them because they have a relatable goal or desire that we can empathize with.
What is an antagonist?
Usually, the villain is a character who wants the exact opposite of the protagonist, but an antagonist can come in various shapes and forms. They aren’t always another human character and they don’t always have to be unlikeable either, they just need to oppose the hero. Antagonistic forces can be anything from an illness, a natural disaster, a supernatural force, or even the protagonist’s major character flaw. What they all have in common is that they’re getting in the way and preventing the hero from achieving their goal.
The key thing to remember is that the protagonist works towards achieving the central goal of the story, while the antagonist works against it.
Creating a worthy opponent
First off, it’s important to point out that you don’t always need to rely solely on the antagonist-protagonist conflict to propel your story forward. But it is a great way to create compelling character dynamics. So, what makes a great antagonist and how do you create one?
Use your Protagonists flaw against them: If your antagonist has a way to exploit or use your hero’s weakness/flaw/limitation and use it against them, it places them in a very powerful position. For example, tempting a gambling addict with a too-good-to-be-true bet that promises to solve all their problems, or testing a man of faith’s doubts about his beliefs, or simply forcing the hero to take action in an environment that terrifies them (fear of water, heights, etc.), can all help to give your antagonist a great advantage.
Give them the same goal: If the hero and villain are competing for the same thing, it makes their rivalry extremely personal and it also allows them to come into direct conflict more often. Similarly, if both parties feel like they’re fighting for a noble cause, it allows us to understand the antagonist’s actions, motivations, and desires, even though we aren’t ultimately rooting for them.
Mirror your Protagonist: Letting your antagonist share some of the same qualities as your hero can help to create a great on-screen dynamic between your characters. An antagonist that shows us what the hero will become if he goes down the wrong path or makes the wrong choices can be a great reminder of the consequences that lie in store for the hero should he fail. Having two characters that are different sides of the same coin can also be a great way to explore the central theme of your story too.
Introduce a final boss: You can have multiple antagonists throughout your story, so you’re not just confined to one. You can even change who your antagonists are, leading the audience to believe it’s one person (or thing), then later revealing it to be another. Lots of minor antagonists can help to create lots of varied conflict, where the hero learns all the tricks they’ll need to defeat the ultimate baddie in the final climax. This can also create a satisfying character arc for the hero and a rewarding ending for the viewers.
Getting the balance right
If your antagonist out-shines your hero, you’re possibly focusing the story on the wrong character, so how do you figure out what’s too much and what’s too little?
Screen time: You don’t have to give your antagonist the same amount of screen time as your hero to have a great villain. One of the most iconic villains, Darth Vader, for instance, only featured on screen for 12-minutes during Star Wars: A New Hope so more doesn’t necessarily mean better. When you decide to introduce your antagonist can be a tricky decision too, but leaving it too late could lessen the amount of peril your protagonist is in. Using a twist reveal to show who the villain is at the end can add an extra layer of surprise, but it can also backfire if done without clumsily and without any foreshadowing.
Success vs. failure: How many times does your antagonist win over your protagonist? If the villain never has a moment of glory and is beaten time and time again, then they’re not being a worthy opponent. Having them win consistently until the final climax, however, not only helps to raise the stakes, it makes that end victory all the sweeter. Use your antagonist’s wins to enhance your protagonist’s character arc, prompting a moment of no return, or a pivotal moment where the hero gives up or can’t see a way out, etc.
Forces growth in your hero: A great antagonist forces your protagonist to grow, change, or learn a valuable lesson by the end of the story. They should challenge the hero into making difficult decisions, make them doubt themselves, and give them a big enough reason to become even more determined to succeed. The antagonist is a key factor in creating conflict for the hero to battle against, creating an antagonist that will actively stand in the way of your protagonist’s achieving their character arc can make a story tighter, succinct, and fulfilling.
To create a satisfying balance, both opposing forces need to work well together; share similarities, both have exploitable strengths and weaknesses and be able to create enough conflict to keep the story moving forward. Your protagonist doesn’t always have to beat the antagonist at the end, but they do need to have grown or changed along the journey.
So, know your protagonists’ goal, and use your antagonist suitably to try and stop them from achieving that goal. Win or lose, make sure the hero has changed by the end.
Lee Hamilton is a script reader, developer, and author. Lee was one of the original readers to join Shore Scripts and has since moved into education and development, penning numerous articles, workbooks, and writing courses.
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